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Two Tech Entrepreneurs Survive AARP ‘Shark Tank’ at CES

Pitch competition brings out start-ups marketing to 50-plus consumers

spinner image Daymond John on stage, banner reads AARP Innovation Labs
Host Daymond John patrols the shark tank at the CES 2019 Pitch Competition, sponsored by AARP Innovation Labs, Thursday in Las Vegas.
Damairs Carter/MediaPunch/IPx

A virtual reality device designed to reduce stress and help you “see” the world, plus an earbud that translates conversations into 15 languages emerged from an AARP “shark tank” Thursday at the CES tech trade show with an opportunity to get AARP backing.

This was no ordinary pitch competition. The epitome of sharks — Daymond John of ABC Shark Tank fame — joined AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins in presiding over the hard-fought battle involving eight tech contenders. It was a rare opportunity for John, who swims nightly with other high-level investors making decisions on products looking for financing, to help create a new kind of competition for a good cause: AARP and the Consumer Technology Association Foundation’s desires to launch innovative products to serve Americans over 50. John said he wasn’t intimidated by the actual live sharks on display in a tank at a nearby casino. “Oh, the sharks at Mandalay Bay? Pfft!,” John said, “I went to Tiger Beach and swam with real sharks.” 

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The two winners — StoryUP Healium and Waverly Labs — will compete again in October at a grand pitch finale at AARP national headquarters in Washington, D.C. StoryUp’s virtual reality (VR) device uses electroencephalogram (EEG) feedback to reduce stress and offer virtual travel opportunities to its users. Waverly’s earbud is able to interpret conversations almost in real time.

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Hundreds of people turned out for the 75-minute event at CES, the largest technology trade show in the world. The competition was at the show’s Eureka Park, home to a dizzying array of start-up companies. And for those who missed the cut, CES plans to make this pitch competition an annual event. This year’s competition was sponsored by AARP Innovation Labs, whose mission is to create bold services, products and solutions for people 50-plus, and the CTA Foundation, an affiliate of the Consumer Technology Association, which puts on CES.

One by one, entrepreneurs enthusiastically pitched their products for a few minutes. Then, three industry experts grilled them about their manufacturing costs, business strategies  and  marketing plans. 

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The winners explained how their gizmos worked and braved the judgment of the audience of human sharks in the room, who listened to their pitches and used smartphones to vote on the budding entrepreneurs’ fates. “We created Healium for ourselves,” said StoryUp CEO Sarah Hill, “because as a former TV broadcaster I struggle with anxiety, and  Healium  is for me as well as the 40 million people who suffer from anxiety.” For example,  Healium  will enable senior veterans who can’t physically travel to see the Washington, D.C., memorials that honor their service to be there in virtual reality — which reduces the stress of their social isolation. It’s also used to reduce stress on long-haul airline flights. Hill said it’s useful “not only on airlines but at assisted living centers, nursing homes, any area of  confined  stress."

Waverly’s Andrew Ochoa said his product battles isolation by connecting people through a high-tech earbud. “We take a high-fidelity speech signal, send it to the cloud, transcribe it, translate it, resynthesize it into a new voice, and send that voice back to the earbud in 1.5 to 2 seconds.” Waverly has brought people together who might otherwise be isolated. In some cases, he said, “parents don’t speak the same language” as their children. In the next version of his product, the earbud will be accessible to the hearing impaired. 

Jenkins told the competitors that AARP’s 38 million members are looking to the future. “Part of that is getting the market to create new products and services that allow people to live  their best  life in their 50s and 60s and 70s and 80s and beyond,” she said. AARP is already working on creating new products for its members and the entire 50-plus population. AARP’s Innovation Labs develops products in-house and engages with experts and start-up communities to create devices to enhance the lives of older Americans.           

The eight finalists were drawn from more than 90 entrants from around the world, said Stephen Ewell, executive director of the CTA Foundation. The six contestants who were not chosen to advance were:

  • Fishball, which plans to manufacture a clip-on lens to turn an iPhone into a 360-degree photo and video camera. 
  • Glowbl, which makes a videoconferencing platform that lets many types of content be shared simultaneously. 
  • GoSun, a solar stove with fuel-free technology whose manufacturer touts it as low-cost, portable, versatile and durable.
  • House of Haptics, which sells bracelets ($115 a pair) that let people send simulated human touches over distances. 
  • Language Hero, a smart-language training app that enables people who speak different languages to talk to each other quickly and efficiently via a video chat.
  • Tikaway , which makes “connected” glasses that provide hands-free video collaboration.

The common thread running through all eight whiz-bang devices was that the products aimed to create social connections. Studies show that loneliness and social isolation are harmful to one’s health. Isolation affects people of all ages, but especially the 115 million Americans age 50-plus. 

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